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Increase Your Probabilistic Inference Skills

The latest salvo in the “games good for you” vs. “games bad for you” debate has been fired.  For now, it seems that games are good for you.

Researchers at the University of Rochester chose 26 subjects who had never played action-packed first person shooter games like “Call of Duty” and “Unreal Tournament.”  Over a period of months, 13 subjects played these action games while the other 13 subjects played calmer, strategy-based games like “The Sims 2” (which is probably not really a game but that’s another post).  The researchers then tested the players’ ability to make quick decisions in a variety of situations involving visual and auditory perception.  Those who had played the action games were able to make good decisions based on the information presented 25% more quickly than those who had played the strategy games.  In addition, the action game players improved their skills at playing the games more quickly than the strategy game players. 

The theory behind this study involves the use of probabilistic inference, which is an intuitive form of the more formal tool called Bayesian inference.  Bayesian inference is used in all kinds of artificial intelligence problems to make good decisions based on evidence.  Our brains are constantly taking in visual and auditory information as we move through the world.  Using this information, we make inference based on the probabilities of certain events occurring.  For example, when we drive, we use our perceptions to make decisions such as when to brake or make evasive movements and so on.   That is, we make inferences based on the probabilities that we are constantly calculating based on information presented to us.  People who can do this more quickly and more accurately will make better decisions than people who are slower or less accurate.

This latest study suggests that playing a certain type of video game can train our brains to evaluate information quickly and make accurate judgments about the appropriate action to take in a particular situation.  So it appears that game playing can be beneficial and not just a waste of time.  At least that’s the logic I used to justify playing an hour of Dr. Mario Rx today.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

1 Comment

  1. Sit10

    I wonder if similar results are seen in practical games, such as slot car racing vs chess (I am using “practical” in its theatrical sense) or even sports (basketball vs golf). What I am getting at is whether speed is a factor, and the intensity of competition (having to be on offense and defense simultaneously, or on the clock rather than meeting a standard, such as par).

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